B.J. Burton was in Los Angeles during the early days of the pandemic when he felt a strong compulsion to head back east.
A 35-year-old producer, engineer, and songwriter whose work for years has straddled the indie and pop worlds, Burton had recently wrapped work with Charli XCX on her acclaimed quickie Covid-era album, How I’m Feeling Now. One year prior, he was nominated for a Record Of The Year Grammy as one of the writers and producers of Bon Iver’s “Hey, Ma,” the latest product of a fruitful collaboration with Justin Vernon that also includes co-piloting 2016’s paradigm-shifting 22, A Million. Around that time, his name also became a fixture in the liner notes of albums by Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, and Miley Cyrus.
But now Burton was inspired to resume his partnership with Low, a Minnesota indie band situated about as far from the pop mainstream — artistically, philosophically, geographically — as possible. Their professional relationship commenced in 2015 with Ones And Sixes and then deepened on Double Negative, a scathing experimental work released to rave reviews in 2018. That album felt like a sequel of sorts to 22, A Million, which scuffed, scratched, and sandblasted Vernon’s stirring Americana melodies into oblivion with bottom-heavy sonics pushed neck-deep into the red. (The influence of Kanye West’s Yeezus, which Burton worked on at Vernon’s invitation, is acknowledged and quite pronounced.) On Double Negative, Burton took this to even greater extremes, submerging the familial harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker in a deeply disquieting murk of enigmatic ambient distortion.
Burton had been talking with Sparhawk about making a third record together, and after a period in the pop wilderness he was ready to revive what has been one of the most rewarding creative unions of his life.
“The weight of the world hit me,” Burton says during a recent visit to his studio in northeast Minneapolis. “And I was like, ‘I need to go make a fucking album in Minnesota with Low.'”
That album, HEY WHAT, dropped in early September, and Burton believes it might very well be the best record he’ll ever be involved with. It also feels like a culmination for one of the most distinctive and fascinating producers currently working in the indie world. While Burton has worked on all sorts of music — including a Grammy-nominated record with the electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, as well as songs by Lizzo, Chance The Rapper, Soccer Mommy, Francis And The Lights, and Twin Shadow — he is most associated with the “melted-down cassette” aesthetic of the Low and Bon Iver albums; a blown-out, wobbly buzz in which it’s never clear how the sounds are being made. Listen to a B.J. Burton production and you might wonder: Is that a guitar, a synthesizer, or an answering machine from 1989 being tortured to death? It all hints at a barren world in which humanity has finally been overwhelmed and swallowed up by maniacal technology run amok. Love it or hate it — I think HEY WHAT is likely the best album of the year — it evokes the feeling of being alive in 2021 like nothing else.
A North Carolina native, Burton currently shuffles freely between L.A. and Minneapolis, or wherever work might take him. I met him at his Minneapolis studio as he held Bruce, a Brussels Griffon puppy who almost matched the affable Burton for infectious gregariousness.
It’s my understanding that for Double Negative and HEY WHAT, Low would bring you demos and you would proceed to deconstruct and sonically revamp them. Can you walk me through that process?
A lot of it is just Alan on guitar and then whoever wrote the song will sing, either Mim or Alan. Or they’ll both go ahead and do their parts. And then I’ll take that and kind of just mess with it, and find a new pocket for the song. And then I’ll have them come back and re-sing it, or have Alan replay the guitar or do something else.
It was just all trust. The first album was me slowly gaining Alan’s trust. The second album I remember he said, “Man, this might be the last album we make, so just go for it. Just do your thing.” That really resonated. It kind of put pressure on me, but a really good, creative pressure, That’s the beginning of what Double Negative started to sound like. Because I was using a lot of shit from my own life — deaths in my family and things like that, and just ugliness and beauty at the same time. Because when someone dies there’s also relief, because they’re no longer suffering. I was going through that with my grandfather, who taught me how to play music.
Alan and Mim have this vibe that they write these songs from heaven or some shit, so it just clicked and it was what the sound needs to be. I think Double Negative was about searching for that, and then HEY WHAT is like, “Hey, we know vocabulary, let’s fucking use it.” Me and Alan are like, “Fuck all these sounds. Let’s just make an album with guitar.” And that’s what HEY WHAT is. It’s all guitar and vocal. There’s no synthesizers on the whole album.
Not even on “All Night”? It sounds like a synth on that track.
That’s just a pedal that he has and it’s manipulated. The reason it sounds so random-ish is because it’s guitar. With a synth, there’s always some exactness to it. Even analog synths, you’re hitting a note, you’re sending that signal. But with guitar there’s so much to it, whether it’s how hard you’re hitting the strings or if you slip up and things like that. That’s why it’s really hard to recreate that with a synthesizer.
When the drums finally come in on the final track, “The Price You Pay (Must Be Wearing Off),” it really hits hard because the album otherwise is so spare.
I remember early on I sequenced the album and sent it to them, with a disclaimer about the drums coming in on the last song. It was conceptualized early on. I guess I just like to listen to albums like a movie. I’m old school like that. It’s like a Scorsese film or some shit.
Can you talk more about how you conceptualize sound? Because on the Low and Bon Iver albums, it really is about how the sounds affect and often disorient you as much as the songs. What is the feeling you are looking for?
When me and Justin made 22, A Million, that was just us fucking around with sounds and making sounds we’d never heard before. We always had to touch it. If something sounded not fresh to us, we’d just have to fuck with it until it did, almost to a fault, almost like we were just going in circles fucking with sounds. So I guess I took that approach and did it with signal routing and chains I came up with during 22, A Million. Vocoding drums or clipping my tape machine and then putting that through a Vocoder, or all these weird signal routes that are just from fucking smoking weed all day and experimenting. I got pretty skilled at knowing, all right, if I send this through this and then that through that, and then it hits that, then I can maybe play a note and Vocode it. It’s like chemistry, throwing different shit in a bottle and see if it explodes, you know? You can tell when someone’s making a noise to be sensational and then with Low or the other albums that I make, it’s like the noise is the music.
So, you’re chasing the sorts of sounds where you don’t actually know what they sound like until you discover them?
Every song I make, I do that. With Low, they trust me 100 percent, and that’s one of the only artists that I work with that does trust me 100 percent. I’ve worked with Justin for way longer and he’s one of my best friends, but I’m still gaining his trust in the studio. Alan’s been doing this for so long so he’s at the point where finding someone to trust all the time is what he wants to do. Justin’s not there yet, or maybe he never will be. He doesn’t need to be, because he also likes to do shit himself.
You’ve said that before you worked with Low you wanted to make them “post-apocalyptic.”
The first thing I heard was this City of Music live performance of “Clarence White,” which is on the album before I did. I forget the name of it. I think they did it with the fucking Wilco guy. And I was like, “What the fuck is this band?” I’d never heard of Low, like, ever. I had no idea. I was just like, this shit’s crazy. Reminded me of Led Zeppelin or something. So, I hit Alan up, and I was like, “Yo, I’d love to do something.”
Then I remember we were at Pachyderm when it first opened again. There was a bluegrass band we were tracking. The only reason I did that album was to get to Alan, because Alan was producing the album and Alan asked me to come help. So it paid off.
I remember the whole band went inside to go to sleep and me and Alan were staying up, getting stoned, listening to music, and talking about how to push it. It wasn’t anything specific – it was more emotional kind of talks about music and what pop music is and what music does today and how impressed we are with certain types of music and shit like that. We had a very common idea about where music stands right now. He played me Drums and Guns and things that he did. I had no idea about any of his back catalog, so he was here just playing me this shit and talking about it. I was like, “Yes, this is the start of something sick.”
I was talking to a friend recently about Double Negative and he was saying he can’t put that album on often because it’s so intense.
That’s a huge compliment.
It’s as intense as a death metal record, even though it’s much quieter. The quiet feels loud on those Low records.
The first time I ever worked with Justin was on Yeezus. We went to Paris and I met Mike Dean and I saw how Mike Dean was pushing the low end on everything to the point where the mains were fucking… I thought they were going to catch on fire. Like, what the fuck?! Why are you doing this, dude? How are you doing this and why are you doing this? But it really inspired me. With 22, A Million, me and Justin both caught that wave from Mike Dean. Ever since, I’ve just been trying to push the limits like he does. How I remember he pushed those limits in that studio, I want to push that.
But I also am disciplined enough to know what’s too much and what doesn’t sound good in certain places and what won’t translate. There’s a learning curve for sure to get a lot of low end in something and make it extremely loud.
Getting back to conceptualizing sound, what do you think it is sonically that creates the simultaneous feelings of dread and beauty you get from 22, A Million or HEY WHAT?
I have this philosophy that if there’s a really good song — Low writes amazing songs — it’s something that’s comfortable. Like, Prince talked about writing choruses that feel like you already heard them, so the intro of the song is actually an instrumental chorus or a hint to the chorus somehow. So when the chorus actually happens, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard this before.” It makes people feel good. In relation to sounds you haven’t heard before, which push that song along, there’s this weird discomfort and also comfort at the exact same time. It’s being comfortable with the song and then hearing sounds you never heard before that makes you uncomfortable.
It just is a beautiful combination. With every production I do, that’s what I try to do. Sometimes I can’t do it all the way, because not every artist is Low.
The vocals are more upfront on HEY WHAT than on Double Negative, which really draws the beauty out of even the harshest moments on the album.
That comes from me being in L.A. L.A.’s cool because you can’t survive in L.A. if you’re not with someone with a voice. I was doing a lot of vocals for music and I was like, “I want to put this with what I do with Low and just have their vocals always upfront and actually maybe even louder than pop music in a cool way.” Like Yeezus, almost. That’s how Kanye likes his vocals. But the difference is Alan’s not annoying. Alan’s actually saying shit that could be important.
What are your memories of working on Yeezus?
Justin was just like, “Kanye asked me to come to Paris. You want to go with me?” It was literally like that, and me, him and his brother went to Paris. I remember we’d go to the studio and work and that’s where I met Mike Dean and I think Travis Scott was there. He was 17 or some shit, I don’t even know. He was just a little kid bouncing off the walls at that time. We would go to the studio and make shit, and Mike Dean would be floating around and be hanging out with us all the time, and I just really hit it off with him. We’d go back to the hotel and watch Waterworld every night.
But Kanye was annoying?
I wouldn’t say that about that version of Kanye. I don’t want to talk too much about Kanye, just because it’s not even worth it. I don’t know him enough to be able to talk about him. But I’ve seen him recently and I’ve also seen him back then, and back then he was definitely an inspiring person to be around.
Yeezus sometimes comes up as a point of comparison for 22, A Million or the Low albums. How do you feel about that?
I mean, it’s a compliment, because I think Yeezus is Kanye’s best album. I don’t like comparisons and shit like that but I think they could be accurate because that was a big influence for me, being in that room, for sure.
It seems like Justin was inspired by Kanye’s example of surrounding himself with talented people in the studio and harnessing that energy.
He has two studios in his house and we set up in the big main studio. It’s like a live room — five or six people can be playing at one time. We just jammed all night, just hours of jams. Then the next day over coffee I would go up to the other studio and just listen. I would always mark shit when I would hear something happening, and try to sum up a song idea in all these jams. And then I would give that to Justin and be like, “Yo, this is a vibe.” And that was the start. He kind of does production and writing at the same time, for better or for worse. I’d love it if he would separate it more, but whatever.
Why is that?
With Low, they come to me with songs complete and that just is freedom with production, because you how this is how this is going to be, this sound and this beat. But it’s also beautiful how Justin does it because it’s unknown and you hit on things as the production unfolds.
22, A Million stretched on for two years, right?
I mean, he had me on retainer. I was getting paid. [Laughs.]
Was it always clear that you were making an album, as opposed to these jams that were being shaped into songs over time? It seems like the process was pretty open-ended.
Me and Justin had a bit of a falling out because he was going to shelve the album. We were pretty far along with shit when he met with me, but we got in a fight about something that’s not about music. He was like, “I need to figure out my own shit.” And I’m like, “All right, cool, man.” He wouldn’t finish lyrics, and it didn’t make sense for me to be around while he was going through his shit, because it’s kind of wasting my time, you know? So it was the end of our working relationship.
Six months go by and [Ryan] Olson had a CD and it was all the songs. Some sounded better, some sounded worse, in my opinion. Then Justin called me out to April Base and was like, “Hey, man, I think I finished the album.” And then he played me the album and it was like all the things that I wanted to happen on the album happened. I had to walk back behind the car, and I put my head between my knees and I just started bawling. Justin’s like, “Yeah, dude, I know.” We both just had this crazy moment. I hadn’t talked to Justin in six months because I was mad at him. So that was a really beautiful moment.
Was it smoother working on i,i?
No. I didn’t really want to work with nine producers and engineers, and he had to go through this whole collaboration thing. I mean, honestly, I don’t think that’s a great album. The production’s all over the place. Sonically, it sounds like a ’90s record to me. It doesn’t hit.
The first song we wrote for that album was “Hey, Ma,” and that was the most complete one. Me and Justin did it in three hours, I think, and it was kind of like a flagship for the album. But I wasn’t around and I wasn’t fucking with shit as much.
But you and Justin are still working together?
We’re always working on music. He’s put out a couple singles that we’ve fucked around with. But we can’t stop making music. We don’t even talk that much when we’re in the studio. We just fuck around. We don’t have a plan. It’s just like, “Yo, I’m going to come over.” He’s like, “All right, cool.” And I just go over there and make shit. That’s been our M.O. the whole time.
22, A Million has always had a druggy vibe to me. There’s also a psychedelic aspect to your work with Low. It seems like mind-altering substances are always part of your creative process?
Yeah, I mean, I smoke a lot of weed. I do a lot of ketamine. A lot of HEY WHAT is very ketamine-based. I got into that and it kind of changed my life for the better. Some of that album is like ketamine trails to me, the sonics. It’s like going through a ketamine trip a little bit. That song “Hey” is really big, like I want it to lift people up for an out-of-body experience or some shit, because that’s how I felt when I was trying to make it.
In a recent interview Alan Sparhawk said, “I want to see technology break as much as it has broken me.” Does that also drive you? Has technology gotten so good that it has to be broken to be interesting again?
I wouldn’t say too good. Working on an analog board you have limitations — you have headroom that sound is going through this board. And working with tape as well, there’s limitations to it, and it’s really cool. With digital it’s all open. It’s zeros and ones. Anything can fucking happen and it’s kind of daunting, because there’s so many options to make something sound like something else. So I just use both worlds, man. I love pushing analog shit to the limits and then bringing that in digitally, and then pushing that to the limits and then combining the two.
There’s almost something primitive about how these albums sound.
I think it’s just reality, man. It’s funny, this girl I was talking to the other day — this could be a complete conspiracy theory — but she said Superman was invented to make the population forget the Great Depression and all the bad shit that was happening. And now we have Marvel movies that are trying to distract us from all the horrible shit that’s going on in the world. Pop music is kind of like that. It’s just distracting us from fucking reality, like these fucking stupid-ass shiny sounds that are on every song for the past 10 years.
We’ve heard it all, and there’s a machine feeding this. Who’s listening to Lil Nas X? Have you ever been to a house and someone is playing that? Why is he the top five streaming artist ever? There’s something going on here.
There does seem to be a unifying aesthetic to music that streams well. “Chill” is favored over anything noisy or abrasive.
Dude, I got so many calls about the Soccer Mommy track that I did after it was mastered and released. “Can we dial back the distortion on this to make it on radio?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” I just wanted not to fight anymore. I want to give her a chance to be on fucking whatever college radio station or whatever. With the pop shit that I do, you’re working with 10 other people and A&R. I’m not going to be like, “No, it’s my vision.” It’s not even worth it. I learned that a long time ago. Because you’re not going to win.
Is it fair to say the Low and Bon Iver records you’ve done are your undiluted vision?
Yeah, 100 percent. Low records are more precise, because I have more control over it and I’m a freak with detail. I don’t take Justin’s records to the finish line myself. It’s Justin mainly, and Justin’s got his own kind of finesse that he likes to do and it’s different from mine, and that’s why we complement each other really well. I’d say the Low albums are more precise and kind of hit certain frequencies where I think they should.
I just love fucking making music, dude, with anyone, and I’m a really good collaborator. I have people through all the time, and try to help people and do my own thing as well.
Do you have an overriding ambition you haven’t achieved yet? A record you’d love to make but haven’t yet?
I mean, I’ve been a part of songs that have done cool stuff, I guess. Maybe not, actually. I’m not really proud of any pop music I’ve made, to be honest. But I’m proud of the people that I’ve made it with. I’m just not that great at making quote-unquote pop music.
I just want to have a good time, man. There’s so much more important shit than music. I forgot about that in my 20s, and was a complete functioning alcoholic forever. Now I want to be happy. I mean, hopefully, my shit could land on the radio, if radio could open up their minds a little bit and stop serving everyone Mountain Dew every day. Just take a risk on some shit, that’ll be cool, because I think then I can get my foot in the door and I can get my fucking yacht and go sail around the fucking Caribbean, you know? I’m down for that. Listening to fucking Jimmy Buffett and shit.